I think the best way to approach this book is not to think of it as a modern novel but instead imagine that you are being told this story by a grandfather or a bard in an inn on a stormy night.
The Long Ships falls somewhere between epic poetry, an oral story, and a history of the Vikings; the book is not, however, a study of complex characters with deep psychologies and nuance. What you’ll find here is a rip-roaring yarn about the various heroic adventures of Red Orm and his friends as they travel into Muslim lands and even as far away as modern-day Russia, and they’ll fight and kill and marry and get religion and behave much more like regular people than what preconceptions about Vikings tend to describe.
The only real complaint I have about many of these adventures (and the book in general) is that too often there is very little sense of danger for Orm – I never felt like anything really bad was going to happen to him and so even though the book is very well written (it moves at a great clip) there is no real tension moving the action forward. Basically we know Orm is going to be alright and so we just need to sit back and enjoy learning how he became alright. And that’s not really a bad thing, but even Homer was able to place Odysseus is much tighter spots whose outcomes didn’t always feel inevitable.
Bengtsson’s strength in the book is portraying the Vikings as real, living, breathing people and not just blood-thirsty killers bent on raping everything they see. Orm is a generous king, one who even converts to the strange and foreign (even undesirable) religion of Christianity. He treats his friends well, is fair to everyone fair to him, and is basically the ideal of a great warrior king – sort of like a Camelot but with more beards. I got the impression that Bengtsson wanted to celebrate his people’s heritage by lending his characters all the good qualities other writers and historians have managed to overlook when dealing with these people. Of course this means the pendulum swings hard the other way and so this book can only be taken as entertainment with a heavy dose of ancestral pride.
Yet it would be unfair for me to require Bengtsson to do anything more than what he has. He has written a story that is, above all else, fun to read and hard to put down. I mean, we’re talking Vikings here and that’s a subject nearly impossible to screw up. Is it uneven? Sure, but so what? I had fun with it.
I would like to add that I find it really strange that this book is not more well known. This book deserves a much wider readership outside of its native country. Thankfully the New York Review of Books have created a wonderful edition (and they always do, too) and hopefully more people will discover this hidden treasure.